Idle Thoughts on Micro-Chunked Consultations

Last week, Steph Gray announced yet another innovative way of trying to engage people in public consultations in his blog post Your starter for ten. The piece describes a scheme in which a series of pub quiz style “killer facts” are pulled out of a current consultation document on consumer rights and credit and then represented in a quiz format along with why you should care/what the consultation is seeking to do to address the issues raised by each quiz question. (You can find the quiz from a link on here: Government action to secure a better deal for consumers.)

This idea, of microchunking particular elements of a consultation and then trying to use these microchunks to draw people into commenting on a consultation document, is one that Joss Winn and I have casually explored in the context of WriteToReply. In that case, we discussed whether or not we should pull out intriguing facts or potentially contentious questions that we could then tweet, along with a link to the appropriate part of the consultation document, in order to entice people into commenting, either directly on the WriteToReply site, or by remote commenting (that is, posting a blog comment or tweet that links back to a particular paragraph on the WriteToReply site site that we can then track via a Trackback).

(As part of this, we imagined creating a list of ‘nuggets’ pulled from consultation docs as we imported them into WordPress; it strikes me now that if we did have such a list, we could set up a twitter account for each consultation that could be run on a ‘daily feeds’ like basis – whenever anyone subscribes, they start to receive tweets @’d to them, according to a personal schedule starting at the moment they follow the consultation, as well as more general broadcast tweets?)

So for example, here are a couple of tweets that we sent out yesterday in support of a new consultation doc on WriteToReply about funding local and regional news (Sustainable independent and impartial news):

One thing to note here is that rathr than linking to the actual paragraph that contains the question, which is what we’d normally do, these tweets link to paragraphs that preview, and provide the context for, the questions. So if you follow the link, you are lead into the body of the consultation document, and if you read on you then come to the question included in the tweet. That is, the tweet provides the question that sets the contest, the link leads through to the part of the consultation that provides the context for the question, and then to the question as it appears in the consultation doc.

Also on Twitter, Joss and I fell into a conversation with Steph and Richard Stirling about the different audiences for consultation docs and what the appropriate means of publication are for those different audiences. So for example, Steph suggested “Consultations have multiple audiences. Suspect downloadable PDFs actually not bad for policy folk. But for public?” [ref], which was backed up by Richard: “I agree with @lesteph’s point. As a policy person I often want to read the whole doc – not sections. PDF works.” [ref].

However, if the aim is to reach outside the policy wonks and the committed lobbiests/interest group members, then I suspect we need smaller ‘headline’ chunks, or atomic parts of the consultation document, to pull people in to the consultation. (Also, we may learn something form the journalists here, and the way they construct stories to lead people in, or at least, give them some of the facts – that is, facts they can misquote in the pub later! – up front.)

There are dangers with the headline approach, of course, as the ‘simplistic’ tweeted questions shown above suggest… At the simplest reading, they just solicit a trivial yes/no answer, rather than an informed comment. But bear this in mind too – those questions were taken from the consultation document itself.

A further thing that’s interesting to note is how the consultation document is actually constructed. The ‘argument’, such as it, and the issues that the consultation wishes to be taken into account, are used to preface the actual questions (see the sections on Potential Sources of Top-Up Funding or Protecting the BBC’s Funding for a couple of examples).

That is, some issues a presented, and then the question is asked. But how likely is this to work as an engagement strategy? A cold start conversational strategy would probably be more likely to start with a question, followed by a discussion (or argument) and an agreement to disagree.

So on the WriteToReply “plural news” consultation dashboard, we have started to explore how we can hook people into the consultation, first through a re-presentation of the consultation questions as simple polls:

and also by using the questions to lead in to some of the discussion that actually appears before the questions in the original consultation document:

We’ve also started looking at pulling related news stories in to the dashboard, in the first instance from the Guardian using the Guardian OpenPlatform API, to try and embed the consultation in a wider context:

There is an issue of circularity here, of course – the news reports presented to date stem largely from responses to the original consultation call, so rather than setting the consultation in context, you could argue they are just responses to it.

Cf. also the approach taken particularly on BBC sites where full articles on a government documents are often backed up with a link to the original document:

But we have to start somewhere, and we are, after all, making this stuff up as we go along. If nothing else, we are exploring how to re-balance the presentation of the consultation doc and associated news stories compared to the mode of presentation used by the BBC et al.

And finally (and slightly off topic!), note that we’re also using WordPress feed to pull in both the content of the report and the comments from the WriteToReply republication of the original consultation document:

However, whilst we can pull the content of the report into the dashboard via an RSS feed, the paragraph level links and links and comment links are not passed though the RSS:

(I suspect this is because the linking is managed by the CommentPress theme? Joss – maybe we need to look at adding paragraph and “comment here” links to the RSS content too?)